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Reclaiming community

Mark Wallace Mark Wallace, senior account manager at Portland Communications and author of the Crash Bang Wallace blog says the word "community" should be restored to its true meaning

As John Prescott demonstrates every day, muddled language is both a cause and a symptom of muddled thinking. Politics is at risk from this phenomenon perhaps more than most other areas of life.

Given the heady combination of 24-hour news, the army of professional offence-takers and the constant scrutiny of one’s opponents, it is no surprise that so much effort is put into polishing the appeal of political messages to wring every last drop of benefit from them.

We’re all acquainted with the kind of politics-speak gobbledegook that can result when this spin doctoring is taken too far. Worse, though, is the risk that words introduced as mere window-dressing can end up changing the actual terms of the debate at hand.

The most notable example of this is probably the use of the word “community”, which has now become almost ubiquitous. No matter what party a politician is from, no matter who or what they are talking about, they always seem to reach for that word.

The reason, of course, is that it sounds nice and cuddly. Naturally enough, we like the idea of communities of people who know and coexist with each other.

Increasingly, rather than say the utilitarian “people”, politicians on all sides have opted for the more appealing term of “community” when referring to different chunks of the electorate. They stopped talking about “gay people” or “Muslims” and started talking only of “the gay community”, “the Muslim community” and every other type of community imaginable.

In concept, that is harmful in itself. As believers in individual liberty and opponents of collectivism we should never bracket other people into one homogeneous group. It is patently absurd to suggest that all Muslims or all gay people think the same way about anything. We are all free individuals.

The semantics and the theory are the least part of the problem though. What began as a rhetorical phrase has itself ended up as a key part of how government and council policies are conceived. People are thought about in policy terms as simply one element of their given herd, with no regard for their actual identity or personality.

This bad habit plays into the hands of special interests who have done a remarkable job of getting themselves recognised as “stakeholders” for their chosen “community”. With that, needless to say, comes both power and money.

It’s even evident in political campaigning – just watch the Labour leadership candidates scurry around for the endorsement of one self-nominated interest group or another.

Harriet Harman provided a brilliantly ridiculous example of this pigeon-holing mentality in the dog days of the Brown Government when she started making up new words for demographic groups. Particularly memorable was her term “the welderly” (not, as you might think, elderly welders, but a term for the “well elderly”).

Thinking about people in such arbitrary, lumpen generalisations leads to tokenism infecting public policy. Political strategists far from the real world are misled into thinking that by ticking boxes they can satisfy one “community” or another, when they should be establishing a fundamental and equal level of freedom that allows all adults to live their lives regardless of creed, sexuality or ethnicity.

I am not going to claim there is “no such thing as community”. There is, but in many places the tradition of knowing one’s neighbours and being able to leave your front door unlocked is dead. It’s not a source of pride to me, but it’s true that I have had far more conversations with strangers on Twitter than I have on my own South London street.

Ignoring the reality of how people actually live and think leads to bad policy and resentment. Those who feel they fall between different groups, or who refuse to be bracketed, grow resentful of the special treatment and attention handed to favoured groups. It is a fundamentally divisive way to govern a country.

Politics would be a much more boring place if no-one used a rhetorical flourish or ten to illustrate their points and promote their ideas. But as the unchecked and meaningless spread of the word “community” shows, you need to be careful about allowing the flourish to become mixed up with your actual policies.


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